Syrians have been killed almost since Hafez al-Assad took power in the 1970s. Now that the bloodshed has escalated under his son Bashar, history repeats itself, and no one seems to care.
In March, the international community put its faith in the peace plan that Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, struck with Mr. Assad. However, his brutal crackdown on the Syrian people — which has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands — continues. Gruesome atrocities happen as soon as United Nations inspectors turn their backs. Civilians are targeted for having dared to speak up to the inspectors or are killed indiscriminately for protesting. Over the weekend, more than 100 people — including more than 30 children — were massacred in the village of Houla. On Tuesday, 13 more bodies were found — bound and shot — in eastern Syria.
It was clear from the start that the Annan plan was hopeless. It called for a cease-fire under United Nations supervision, but a cease-fire is usually between two armies; in this case, there is only one army slaughtering its own unarmed population. In addition, the United Nations has authorized far too few monitors — 300 to cover an area of 71,429 square miles. Some areas, like Homs, need 10,000 monitors.
The peace plan also called for Mr. Assad and his cronies “to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people,” but they know that if any power is conceded to the opposition, it will mean the end of the regime. Dictators like Mr. Assad work on absolute power — the aspirations of the people are not compatible with dictatorship. The plan called for freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists. But the Syrian press has not been free for 50 years, and citizen journalists have recently been sentenced to death.
With all these points, Mr. Annan set himself up for bitter disappointment. For the international community to think the peace plan would work simply showed how detached it was from the reality in Syria.
The West is very good at talking; it has used a vast array of vocabulary to describe the situation in Syria and how appalling it is. However, actions speak louder than words. I had been calling on the Western powers to expel Syrian ambassadors since last July. Unfortunately, it took a massacre on the scale of Houla to get them to agree to do so this week. Thousands of innocent civilians died in the meantime. The West must now recognize that the regime has reached a point of no return, that resolutions are worthless and that the only future for Syria is without the Assad political dynasty.
We are not asking for boots on the ground but for a no-fly zone similar to the ones imposed on Iraq and Libya and for support for the opposition’s Free Syrian Army. The no-fly zone would keep the government from bombing civilians indiscriminately. It would also help the opposition build a democratic political platform, because its leaders would be able to travel and speak with civilians without fear of being killed by government forces. And it would give the Free Syrian Army room to operate. The army also needs weapons, and the West should help supply them — though they should be distributed in a controlled manner and not just dumped on the streets of Syria.
The West supported the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, whose activities now appear minor compared with what is going on in Syria. To fail to do the same now is hypocrisy.
Of course, Syria is getting special treatment because of the support of Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. But if Russia’s aim is to maintain its influence in the Middle East though military contracts with Syria and the strategic port of Tartus, then the best way to do that is by supporting the uprising. The government is a sinking ship, and the Russians, who appear not to care about the atrocities that are being committed in Syria on a daily basis, should care about that. If they think that the regime is about to fall, then and only then will they change sides. In the meantime, the Assad government can also count on some support from China, as well as active assistance from Iran and its client Hezbollah.
The West cannot stand idly by. The longer this conflict drags on, the greater chance there is for Syria to fall into chaotic war, with grave consequences for the international community. We do not want to see more failed states like Afghanistan.
The region’s best hope is a free and fair Syria, representative of all aspects of Syrian life, respectful of the judiciary, international law and human rights and life. And right now Syrians need all the help they can get.
Haitham Maleh is a human rights lawyer, a former judge and a leader of the Syrian opposition.